I apologize for the delay in publishing Part 2 of my two-part report on sugar. Once again, that wonderfully unpredictable thing called life simply threw off my plans. But this posting is a natural follow-on to Sugar (Part 1), which if you may recall focused largely on how our bodies react to sugar and how most of us simply are consuming far too much.
As it happens, I suffer from an annoying sweet tooth, which I constantly battle and/or make excuses for. From all the anecdotal research I’ve conducted over the years, I’m convinced I could lose the sweet tooth if I could give up added sugar entirely for a few months. But therein lies the problem… I don’t make it past a week or two, a situation exacerbated by my love of baking. So for people who share my challenge, it makes sense to know how much is too much and what the different options are for sweetening the food we eat.
Here, I’ve tried to summarize the various sugars we regularly use and/or have seen as a commonly listed ingredient. There may be one or two less familiar, as many sugar substitutes have entered the market in recent years. Some of this won’t be news, but I think there are interesting if not surprising facts for everyone.
For instance, many don’t realize that brown sugar is just ordinary white sugar to which a relatively small amount of molasses has been reintroduced. Normally, molasses is separated and removed when table sugar is created from sugarcane plants. Because of its molasses content, brown sugar does contain trace amounts of a few minerals, including potassium, iron and magnesium. But since the amounts are so minuscule, there really is no additional health benefit to using brown sugar. That said, there is a slight taste difference, particularly in baked goods, so if a recipe calls for brown sugar, it’s best not to substitute white.
Honey–if it’s raw honey, it’s considered nutritionally superior to table sugar or maple syrup due to its mineral content as well as its purported healing properties. It’s especially recommended for a cough or sore throat. Honey can also be moisturizing, healing and soothing to irritated skin.
Maple syrup is also relatively unprocessed as it can be used immediately after being tapped from the tree. However, be sure to only use organic maple syrup since common non-organic practices include the use of formaldehyde plugs where the syrup is tapped and lead buckets for collection.
It’s important to note that while honey has a slightly lower glycemic index than table sugar, both honey and maple syrup have significantly more calories than table sugar on a per ounce basis. So if you’re counting calories, you might want to opt for plain unrefined cane sugar or one of the other sugar substitutes mentioned below.
Agave syrup has received a lot of press over the last few years. Initially it was hailed as the ultimate answer to sweeteners because it purportedly didn’t cause a spike in blood sugar levels (due to its high fructose levels vs. sugar’s high glucose levels) making it ideal for diabetics and pre-diabetics. However, research has shown that fructose may promote disease more readily than glucose because glucose is metabolized by every cell in the body whereas fructose is metabolized by only the liver–putting this particular organ at greater risk of disease. In addition, fructose may contribute to diabetic conditions since it reduces the sensitivity of insulin receptors resulting in the body having to produce more insulin to handle the same amount of glucose.
Furthermore, because it was often sold in natural foods stores, agave was considered a natural sugar. In reality, most agave syrup is highly processed using either heat or enzymes. If you use agave syrup, make sure you are buying “raw” agave syrup. It is heated at a lower temperature so few natural enzymes are destroyed. It’s also important to note that although one teaspoon of agave syrup has the same amount of calories as one teaspoon of sugar, because agave is 40 percent sweeter it should never be substituted ounce for ounce, cup for cup, etc., thereby reducing your calorie intake. I still use agave, but sparingly and only in one or two recipes.
Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute derived from a plant/herb in the sunflower family that is native to areas ranging from western North America to South America. It’s been used for centuries by various populations in Paraguay even though it was just approved by the FDA in 2008 (and approved for use in the EU just last year). It appears to have a negligible effect on blood glucose, making it an excellent choice for people on low-sugar and carbohydrate-restricted diets, although some people claim it has a slightly bitter or licorice-like aftertaste. However, I have sampled the Sweetleaf brand, and have not noticed any unpleasant aftertaste. It’s an easy sweetener to add to jams, sauces, tea or coffee where you don’t need it to also affect the texture. I’ve been experimenting with using Stevia in baking, but it’s a bit trickier, hence I can’t offer any specific substitution amounts yet.
The sugar alcohol Xylitol is also considered a natural sugar substitute. It occurs naturally in the fiber of many fruits and vegetables as well as corn husks and sugar cane stalks. Because gram for gram it has greater than one-third fewer calories than table sugar, it’s considered a good sugar substitute for diabetics and people with hyperglycemia. And unlike Stevia, is has virtually no aftertaste. That said, Xylitol has not been widely embraced, in part because like other sugar alcohols (e.g., mannitol and sorbitol), it can cause temporary stomach upset, including bloating, flatulence and diarrhea (oh, joy).
The sugar to avoid–at all cost–is corn syrup, particularly high fructose corn syrup. This highly-processed sweetener is the most common added sweetener in processed foods and beverages. It causes a huge spike in blood sugar levels and has been implicated in the dramatic increase in Type 2 Diabetes in the U.S. as well as the record levels of obesity and increased triglyceride levels (which leads to increased risk of heart attack).
A recent Princeton University study found that rats who consumed high-fructose corn syrup “gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.” Furthermore, the study found that in addition to the significant weight gain experienced by the high-fructose consuming rats, “long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides.” These same characteristics in humans are known risk factors for high-blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Numerous studies have linked high-fructose corn syrup to the obesity epidemic plaguing the US today. Just think about it, 40 years ago, only 15 percent of people living in the U.S were considered obese. Today, more than one-third of Americans meet the definition of obese (20% or more over an individual’s ideal body weight).
And speaking of obesity rates in the United States, here is where I have to go off on a tangent and shed light on a worrisome phenomenon that in reality isn’t really a phenomenon, but a calculated practice. That is, chain stores are making larger clothes for the same sizes. What do I mean? My weight and standard body measurements have remained the same since my early 20s. That’s attributable in part to inherited high metabolism as well as the fact that I pay careful attention to what I eat, how much I’m eating and exercising, etc. However, with chains such as Gap and J. Crew, I have “shrunk” 2-3 sizes. A store manager at one of these stores, whom I have gotten to know over the years, confirmed that making larger clothes for traditional 0-14 and XS-XL was an intentional practice by the brand she represents. Clothing manufacturers don’t want customers to know or think they’re getting bigger, because customers will feel less positive about themselves and the store or brand that made them aware of this fact. I find it downright deceitful and manipulative, but that’s fodder for another posting.
Aspartame is the last sugar substitute I’ll mention in this posting. I’m including it only because I’m surprised to still find it in so many products. It is an artificial sweetener, that was originally sold under the brand, NutraSweet. Gram for gram, it has about the same number of calories as sucrose (regular table sugar), but because its sweetness is so concentrated (200 times greater than table sugar), the amount you might use to sweeten something is so small that the caloric count becomes negligible.
Aspartame was the center of controversy for decades. Reports linked it to everything from multiple sclerosis to seizures, headaches and brain tumors, but the reports themselves were controversial, and the FDA has continued to consider aspartame a safe non-nutritive sweetener at “current levels of consumption.” In fact, aspartame has been found by more than 90 countries worldwide to be safe for human consumption. Aspartame actually was at the center of what is considered one of the largest known internet hoax conspiracy theories. Due to all the claims and confusion, several large companies made public statements indicating they would no longer use aspartame in their products. Later this year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is expected to release it’s findings of a full re-evaluation of aspartame.
Perhaps because I don’t have undying faith in the FDA or because the added clause “at current levels of consumption” isn’t reassuring enough, I still avoid aspartame (entirely). It should also be noted that because one of the products aspartame breaks down into is phenylalanine, aspartame must be entirely avoided by people with the relatively rare genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU).
The bottom line remains the same: Whether we’re spreading honey on our toast, drinking a carbonated beverage, or enjoying a cupcake from one of the many boutique cupcake bakeries that have popped up, we as a nation currently consume far more sugar than our bodies can handle without serious negative side effects. I feel as though it’s become my mantra, but what we need to remember is that sugar causes inflammation, and inflammation is the precursor to many major diseases including cancer and heart disease.
So how do you like your cup of tea: with one lump or two?